Procrastination is a good thing

Some more to whet your appetite about The Pink Carnation series from Lauren Willig’s website.

The Pink Carnation was my reward to myself for passing my General Exams at the end of my second year of grad school. Reading a dull homework assignment earns me a frappuccino; writing a paper merits a new pair of shoes; for two years of studying, I deserved something really, really big, so I took the summer off, pushed my dissertation into a “think about later” pigeon hole, lounged by the pool, re-read my entire Elizabeth Peters collection, and started writing about the Purple Gentian.

The idea for the story emerged from endless years of overexposure to the Scarlet Pimpernel and his brethren (by whom I mean any dashing rogue, usually played by Errol Flynn, who delivers a witty line, jumps off a table, brandishes a sword, and defeats the perspiring villain with one hand held languidly behind his back). One would be hard pressed to find an old-fashioned swashbuckler I hadn’t watched to distraction, but the Scarlet Pimpernel received an extra boost in the dashing hero stakes when my school had the good sense to show the Anthony Andrews version as part of the eighth grade history unit. The eighth grade—forty giggly girls in plaid kilts—were enthralled. We broke into warring camps over whether Anthony Andrews was cuter, or the guy who played Armand (for the record, my vote is still in for Anthony Andrews as the Pimpernel). No sleepover party was complete without a late night viewing, and a rapturous repetition of “We seek him here, we seek him there…. Oooh! He’s so cute! Hey, that was my pillow! Give it back!”

There was, I reflected years later, only one slight problem. The Pimpernel had it too easy. True, he had to worry over whether Marguerite was spying for Chauvelin, but he never let that seriously impede his progress. What would a spy fear most? Not an enemy, but an unwanted ally. A man in a black cloak, and a strong-minded heroine set on unmasking him—so she can help him. Every spy’s worst nightmare. I even had a name for my spy! Back on the Chapin Badminton team, I had a friend named Jen Chen, whom my best friend affectionately nicknamed Purple Gentian, because, if one says Jen Chen quickly, it sounds like gentian, and all the best gentians are purple. It sounded right. It sounded like a spy in cloak and knee breeches. I had my hero.

The title, the Pink Carnation, appeared late in the game, and entirely by accident, which is the way most things in my life happen. I admire those authors whose plots are charted from the first chapter, and whose characters do just what they tell them to. My characters know who is boss. Them. I just watch, chronicle, and occasionally go back and rewrite after they’ve made a hash of my carefully laid plot plans. Take Jane, for example. Jane was supposed to be meek and mild, a well-mannered foil to the hoydenish Amy. Somewhere along the line, Jane developed a sarcastic sense of humor. Then she started ordering everyone about. Before I knew it, my timid Jane had turned into an evil mastermind with nerves of steel and annoying rhetorical habits. I have no doubt that she was egged on by Miss Gwen, who was trying to get back at me for giving her unfortunate taste in millinery. Likewise, Geoff transformed from Richard’s secretary into an old friend from Eton with a place in the peerage and a plot-line of his own, and Richard hired a butler without telling me. I just opened the door of his Paris townhouse, and there he was.

I wrote the Pink Carnation over the course of two summers—that second summer was really supposed to be devoted to writing about dashing spies of an entirely different sort, the royalists fighting for King Charles I who made up the subject of my neglected dissertation. But, by that point, Amy and Richard were embroiled in romantic intrigue, plotting to steal Napoleon’s gold, and smooching on the Seine, and I couldn’t just leave them there. I was also tired and cranky after a year of teaching Western Civ, and grading student papers that contained gems like, “The Middle Ages are known as the Dark Ages because the buildings didn’t have windows; in the Renaissance, they discovered glass, and everything became light.” Enough said. The Royalists would have to wait.

I had a summer job in the history department library, a wonderful old wood-paneled room, with a twisty iron staircase, the sort of library, where, on rainy days, one expects a butler to enter, and say, “Pardon me, madam, but Sir Reginald was just murdered with a lead pipe in the conservatory.” Ignoring the dusty pile of reference books next to me, I typed away at Pink Carnation, and tried not to look too guilty every time a professor wandered into the library. If they ever noticed that my “dissertation notes” were written largely in dialogue, with more heaving and throbbing than one would expect of the partisans of Charles I, no one ever commented on it. I had warned my advisor when I first came to Harvard that the purpose of my PhD was to write historically accurate romance novels. He thought it was a great joke. So did the coordinator of the history department, when I gave him my blurb for the facebook, and… you get the idea. Honesty is definitely the best policy when there is no danger of being taken seriously.


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